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'Disturbing' texts between Oregon police and far-right group prompt investigation

Texts between Joey Gibson, the leader of the far-right group Patriot Prayer, and Portland police Lt. Jeff Niiya have been criticized by officials in Oregon's largest city.
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After public backlash, the mayor of Portland, Oregon, is no longer asking the city's police chief to lead an investigation into friendly text messages between a lieutenant and the leader of a far-right group that some officials say confirm "collusion" — a criticism later mocked by the group's leader.

Officials and activists also voiced concern about the texts and demanded that Mayor Ted Wheeler order an independent investigation — and not one headed by Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw as he first suggested. The mayor relented late Friday and said he will be working on how the new inquiry will take shape.

"I will order an independent investigation to review the existence of bias in the actions of the [Portland Police Bureau] leading up to and during demonstrations involving alt-right and anti-fascist protesters," he said in a statement, adding that he has "heard from the people of Portland" and will also work with Outlaw to implement training for police in identifying white supremacy.

Wheeler's concern over the texts, which he called "disturbing," comes after a report Thursday in the Willamette Week that highlights the correspondence between Joey Gibson, the leader of Patriot Prayer, and Portland police Lt. Jeff Niiya, the commander of the department's rapid response team.

The pair shared messages in 2017 and 2018 that were joking at times, but also raise concerns that police give Patriot Prayer and members preferential treatment, even though they have been involved in violent clashes with antifascist protesters.

Wheeler said Thursday that he was concerned because it was exactly those demonstrations led by Gibson that "have caused significant disruption and increased fear in our community."

The mayor also said the texts "appear to cross several boundaries" and "raise questions about whether warrants are being enforced consistently and what information is being shared with individuals who may be subject to arrest."

The Portland Police Bureau said Friday that Niiya has been removed from the rapid response team during the investigation and that officials would hold a community listening event next week.

"It is imperative that we come together to hear people's concerns and ideas," Outlaw said in a statement.

The release of the texts come a week after the city introduced a resolution condemning white supremacy and alt-right hate groups.

Gibson's Patriot Prayer, based in the Portland suburb of Vancouver, Washington, says it is not a white nationalist organization and believes in gun rights and defending the Second Amendment. Its rallies, however, have drawn interest from white supremacists and white nationalists, and has led to police using pepper spray and flash-bang grenades to break up the brawls with counterprotesters.

The Portland police has been criticized for its use of force against counterprotesters.

Gregory McKelvey, an organizer with the activist group Portland's Resistance, was previously arrested by officers at a demonstration and said the department already gives the appearance of being against counterprotesters because they often face them when they line up, while putting their backs to the far-right groups.

"I don't think it would be beyond anybody's imagination that police might want to have a friendly correspondence with right-wing organizations to collect information. However, it crosses a line when you're tipping off those organizers to when new leftist organizations are being formed, to where leftist protesters are or how its members can avoid arrest," McKelvey said. "I've attended these rallies and I've never been tipped off."

In one text exchange from December 2017, Niiya asked Gibson about one of his members, Tusitala Toese, who had been involved in fights at rallies and had a warrant out for his arrest on a disorderly conduct charge.

Image: Joey Gibson speaks during a rally in Berkeley
Joey Gibson at a rally in Berkeley, Calif., on April 27, 2017.Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP file

Niiya told Gibson that officers ignored the warrant at a previous demonstration, but to make sure that Toese didn't do anything at the next one "which may draw our attention," according to the Willamette Week.

"If he still has the warrant in the system (I don't run you guys so I don't personally know) the officers could arrest him," Niiya wrote. "I don't see a need to arrest on the warrant unless there is a reason."

Toese, however, was arrested during a protest in Portland's downtown that same month when he struck a counterprotester, reported The Oregonian.

In response to Niiya's guidance, Portland police Lt. Tina Jones told the Willamette Week that it is "not uncommon for officers to provide guidance for someone to turn themselves in on a warrant if the subject is not present."

In another message, when Gibson told Niiya last year that he was planning to run for Congress representing the state of Washington, Niiya responded, "Your [sic] running for office?!! Good for you. County level?"

Gibson ran for Senate, but lost in the Republican primary.

James Ofsink, another organizer with Portland's Resistance, said the texts between Niiya and Gibson, as well as the release of Niiya's work emails related to Gibson, are a "real smoking gun" that exhibit favoritism.

Emails sent by Niiya to other officers suggest they knew about his conversations with Gibson.

"I think in Portland we need real tangible steps in citizen oversight and real accountability for police," Ofsink said.

Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said in a statement Thursday that "there are members of the Portland police force who work in collusion with right-wing extremists."

She, along with the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Oregon chapter, were among those calling for an independent investigation.

In a Facebook video late Thursday, Gibson denied his conversations with Niiya were a way for his group to get an upper hand during rallies and said officials in Portland were mischaracterizing the interaction.

"When they see two people treating each other and talking like grown adults, like simple adults, they have a meltdown," Gibson said. "And the mayor has a meltdown. He thinks it's inappropriate for two men to talk to each other, to make sure to de-escalate, and to avoid conflict as much as possible."

He added that Niiya alerted him to the counterprotesters' whereabouts in order to stay clear of clashes.

Niiya, he added, was "trying to do everything he can because police are blamed whenever there's conflict."